Both nights of the miniseries were provided prior to broadcast.
Even though it might not have been represented in direct name, for decades there have been countless spiritual successors and adaptations of Agatha Christie’s airtight whodunnit And Then There Were None. TV versions go so far back that the novel’s original British title seemed decent enough for the small screen. More modern interpretations – CBS’ slick summer slasher Harper’s Island – have kept its structure and enhanced the splatter.
There have been Family Guy episodes, crappy YA updates, and now BBC One and Lifetime have joined forces for a co-production of the novel. There’s a lurid new sex-and-violence bent to pull the material into the modern world it’s airing in (and Lifetime’s lineup), but writer Sarah Phelps has largely stayed close to Christie’s biggest turns. It’s a mouse trap set-up that can’t help but gleefully entertain – until it doesn’t.
Perhaps it’s the short stay we have with the characters (just two nights), or the drab atmosphere, but BBC One and Lifetime’s version grows languid when it should only get more gripping. The pre-game set-up promises all of the secrets and twisted goodness behind each steely character, but the flashbacks granted by the visual medium feel like overcorrections to the novel’s simplistic, straightforward cruelty. It has the bones of Christie’s novel, but not the diabolical soul.
At least it’s faithful: the story opens in the late 1930s, there are ten strangers (all boasting their source material’s names), and they’ve all been mysteriously beckoned to a sparse island off the coast of England by one U.N. Owen. Some believe they’re there for servitude, others for a party, some to visit old friends, but eventually they discover that they’re all guilty of a crime that’s swept past the justice system, and a creepy children’s poem framed around the house is coming true. “Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine,” and so on.
The cast makes up a lot of ground work even when the proceedings are sluggish. Standouts include the troubled Vera Claythorne (Maeve Dermody), upstanding Justice Lawrence Wargrave (Charles Dance), and terrifically bitchy Emily Brent (Miranda Richardson). In small roles as the help guarding U.N. Owen’s mansion, Thomas (Noah Taylor) and Ethel Rogers (Anna Maxwell Martin) punctuate the haunted creepiness of the very earthly murders. Once the first Soldier Boy falls (and ten representative statues become whittled down), paranoia rips through the island when the guests discover there’s no one else around: one of them is definitely the killer.
Like its written counterpart, a lot of the new And Then There Were None is fueled by the simple perplexity of its central mystery. A few slight changes are made, but are largely ineffectual to the overall effect of the story. This time, Anthony Marston (Douglas Booth) is a cocaine addict, but his treacherous driving habits are kept intact. The suggested romance between Vera and unapologetic Philip Lombard (Aidan Turner) is made literal, but their last conversation echoes much of Christie’s novel. Thankfully the wry British politeness, even in the face of certain death, is kept intact here.
What dulls the impact of And Then There Were None‘s more quiet cruelty is the simple – and unavoidable – assistance that such an adaptation would find hard to avoid: visually blunt metaphors. Not long after everyone starts dropping like flies, characters quickly lose sanity. A lot of the delusions lead to flashbacks – the first few focused on the wartime treachery of General John MacArthur (Sam Neill) – but they’re monotonous affairs. John sees blood seeping through the sand past his feet, Vera struggles with a phantom child alone in her room – they go beyond Christie’s economical prose (these aren’t innocent people, here are a few sentences why) and attempt to wring psychologically grueling sequences out of each guest.
It’s exhausting after a while. Especially given the miniseries’ format, which was divvied up over three nights on BBC One last Christmas in the United Kingdom, but will be split down the middle over two nights on Lifetime this week. There just isn’t enough time to cover the bases for each victim’s tragic backstory over three hours, and it has a negative effect on the ultimate mortal fate of each. Ten episodes would have been narratively clever to execute and given Phelps room to breathe, but it’s understandable why the networks wouldn’t want to risk the series getting axed before U.N. Owen had a chance to axe everyone himself.
As it stands, the three hours of And Then There Were None we’ve gotten have a weird doubling effect of feeling overstuffed and underdone. Each character gets their truncated mythology, and the actors give fleeting reasons to care about their demise, but the murders are simply not as ominous as they are on paper. The gloriously empty realization of Soldier Island has the sparse cinematography of a David Fincher film (particularly that ghoulish mansion in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), but the false dread of the threat on the island fails to back up the show’s otherwise successfully ominous atmosphere.
By the end of night two, all of Mr. Owen’s motivations come to light – in a final scene that is hands-down the best original creation of the show, as satisfying as the final move in a game of Clue – but it’s hard for the reveal to fully make up for the dips into monotony that Phelps’ series stumbles into, especially in the should-have-been blistering second night. As a new angle on one of the oldest straight-up slasher stories, this And Then There Were None is commendably put-together – and its cast gamely embodies the opposing personalities of the source material – but along the way its seriousness becomes a handicap, its blunt storytelling a crutch. It, unlike Christie’s fiendish little book, forgets to just have fun.
The building blocks of Agatha Christie's famous locked-room mystery are kept intact, but this new version's drab atmosphere and straight-faced tone feel disconnected from the puppet-master playfulness of the book.